Rockford, Washington and the Two Victorian Women Who Walked Across America

The small town of Rockford, Washington is tucked along the Palouse Scenic Byway (State Route 27). With two creeks, one to the west and one to the north, its one-block quaint historic downtown has views of green trees. While touring Spokane, a local told me that Rockford (population 470), was one of their favorite small towns, so I had to check it out.

What I discovered when I got there, is a story everyone should know.

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Historic downtown in Rockford, Washington.

Rockford, Washington and the

Two Victorian Women Who Walked Across America

First, A Little Bit About Rockford and the Palouse

The drive to Rockford from Spokane takes you through Eastern Washington’s famous Palouse with its beautiful rolling hills. This area is a destination in itself, will hills dotted with farmhouses, tiny towns, larger towns like Pullman and Moscow, Idaho, and is a 35-minute drive from Spokane. While driving through the Palouse I urge you to take your time and if a side road looks appealing, turn down that road to check out the scenery, for this part of Washington is too beautiful to speed through.

The Palouse Scenic Highway in Washington State.

Travel tip: If you want more information on the Palouse Scenic Byway, including what to do, where to stay and eat, and maps, check out their website.

Rockford was first settled in 1878, and its historic downtown is lined with several buildings. As you know, my first stop in a small town is the history museum, and Rockford has three; the Pioneer Museum, the Military Museum, and the Farm Museum. During my visit only the Pioneer Museum was open, and inside it held a story that truly amazed me.

What was the story that captivated my attention?

It was about a mother and daughter, Helga and Clara Estby, who walked across Victorian America in 1896. Why did they do it? With the economic crisis in the late 1800s, the Estby’s were going to lose their family farm located outside of Rockford. A wealthy New York woman proposed to pay Helga $10,000 if she walked from Spokane to New York City.

A huge part of the proposal was that she and her daughter wear a new bicycle skirt that debuted at the 1983 World’s Fair in Chicago. The short grey skirt fell several inches below the knee and had leggings and a jacket. (For a Victoria-era woman, showing ankles was not part of an appropriate or acceptable dress code.) Another component was to prove to society that women were not delicate or weak creatures but had physical and mental strength.


Helga and Clara Estby.

The Decision

With their home on the line, Helga, a Norwegian immigrant who had spent many years as a pioneer wife, took on the challenge. Her teenage daughter Clara joined her. Helga decided to keep a journal of their travels, and Clara brought a sketchbook, with the hopes to make additional monies from their story.

Some additional rules of the signed contract included:

  • They could only leave with $5 a piece
  • Along the way, they had to find ways to support themselves without begging
  • At state capitals they had to meet with political leaders

Today, a road trip across the United States in a car seems like a big ordeal. Imagine walking the entire way! Add on, societies ideas about women in the Victoria age and their journey seems even more burdened by societal norms.

The Walk Across America

For the most part, they walked along the railroad lines from town to town. Along the way they faced hardships, like getting lost in the desert, being followed by a cougar, having to wade through waist-high rivers and creeks in heavy skirts, and dealing with vagrants and rattlesnakes. There were also happy moments, where the kindness of strangers eased their journey with bottles of water left for them along the tracks, hoteliers who hosted them for the night, and farmers sharing a meal. They crossed fourteen states, and when they didn’t stop to make money for food and lodging, they walked around 25 miles every day. They left Washington State in April and arrived in New York City in December.

Helba Etsby at the Pioneer Museum in Rockford, Washington.

A Story Silenced

I had never heard of Helga and Clara’s journey, and most likely, you haven’t either. There is a reason why. Helga and Clara completed their journey, but the anonymous wealthy woman didn’t keep their end of the contract and pay the $10,000. On top of that, they were stuck in New York City with no means to return home until they made enough money. During this time, two of Helga’s children died, and when the mother and daughter finally did return, Helga’s absence and the reason for her absence created much bitterness with her husband and the children she left behind. On top of that, the Norwegian community and Victorian society, frowned upon her achievement because it took her away from what she was created to do, which was “take care of her home and her children.” The walk across America wasn’t talked about in the family, and after her death, her daughters (Ida and Lilian) destroyed her notes and journals.

Helga’s Journey Brought to Life

As someone who loves history, traveling and the written word, that so makes my heart ache. While I understand the emotional side, it is really sad that her notes, journals, and drawings are lost for I’m sure they captured a unique view of America and its people.

Thankfully, author Linda Lawrence Hunt took it upon herself to write Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America. I purchased it at the museum and just finished reading it. The author did an excellent job of recreating their walk across America from newspaper clippings from the stops the pair made en route, visuals of the landscapes and the terrain they walked through, and lots of history about pioneer life, suffragettes, women’s rights, and the politics of the time, including women’s rights to vote. She even included a chapter dedicated to the silencing of family stories.

If Helga and Clara’s story piques your interest, I highly recommend the book.

Click on the image to order on Amazon.

Now that I’ve read the book and have a better understanding of the story I want to go back to the Pioneer Museum and review the exhibit on the Estby’s again.

Visiting the Pioneer Museum

Give yourself an hour at the museum. It has interesting local artifacts,  old photographs, and an upstairs as well, that has a pair of slippers “worn by every initiate into the Rockford Lodge #45.” The museum is open Fridays from 10 am to 3 pm, and Sundays from 10 am to 4 pm, Memorial Day to Labor Day. Donations greatly appreciated.

Downtown Rockford, Washington

After my museum visit, I walked through Hurd Mercantile Gift Mall and then stopped at Harvest Moon Cafe. Since I’d eaten a big breakfast at The Historic Davenport Hotel I opted for ice cream. It was only $2! The cafe is diner style. One side had cafe seating; the other side is bar seating.

Ice cream from Harvest Moon Cafe in Davenport.

Travel tip: Other amenities of interest to travelers in Rockford is FarmHouse Pizza, Banner Bank with an ATM and a minimart with a gas station.

Side Stop in Valleyford

Another place I stumbled upon while driving around is the Palouse Brew House. This makes for a great stop as cafes can be spread out. They have a drive-thru and a small section with outdoor seating. On the menu is coffee, soda, wine and beer, paninis, flatbread pizza, and salads. It is a 12-minute drive from Rockford.

Stay in Spokane, Washington

If you like to include a mix of the big city and small towns during your travels, Spokane makes for a great home base. It is the second largest city in Washington State and has plenty of accommodations, activities, and eateries. It is also a short drive to the Palouse Scenic Byway and a 35-minute drive to Rockport.

The Historic Davenport Hotel

During my visit, I was hosted by The Historic Davenport in Spokane. Built by Louis Davenport, it opened in 1914 and in 2000 underwent a multi-million dollar restoration. It is stunning and even if you decide to stay at another hotel, be sure to stroll through the lobby and wander around the second floor which has old photographs, Bing Crosby memorabilia (he was born and raised in Spokane), and the Hall of Doges.

Travel tip: If you have time for a spa day, Davenport Spa and Salon received a four-star rating from Forbes Travel Guide. Another excellent spa is La Rive Spa Northern Quest Casino, which has an experiential shower and whirlpool.

Fun fact: Crab Louis was not invented in San Francisco, it was invented by the chef at The Historic Davenport Hotel!

The beds at the hotel are like sleeping on a cloud and there are bars, restaurants, and a spa within the hotel. Another great perk about the hotel is that it is located in heart of downtown Spokane and within walking distance to restaurants, bars, shopping, pharmacies, and the Spokane Riverfront Park with a historic carousel, skate ribbon, and Spokane Falls.

To find out more about The Historic Davenport Hotel visit their website.

To help support my blog, book through one of my affiliates such as TripAdvisorTravelocityHotels.com, and Expedia. (Booking through one of my affiliates is at no extra charge to you, but provides me with a small commission so I can continue to #dreambigtravelsmall.)

To find out more about the area, go to Visit Spokane.


As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.


To find out more about more about Spokane, read reviews on TripAdvisorHotels.com, and Expedia.com.


What did you think of Helga’s story? As a Victorian woman would you travel across America by foot?

Helga and Clara Estby.

40 thoughts on “Rockford, Washington and the Two Victorian Women Who Walked Across America”

  1. Fascinating story — and so sad too! How awful to have made such a sacrifice and then be stranded like that. To lose children and to be shunned too — that’s just awful! Rockford would be a fun stop when I’m in Spokane again. I’m actually headed there as we speak but only for a short visit before exploring North Idaho. Thanks for the share!

    Reply
    • Tami, I know! That would be so disheartening, and my heart ached for her. You could tell from her older years that her adventurous nature and spunk was part of her personality.

      Reply
  2. A nice little town to visit and wow speechless about these two women. I am glad light has been shed on their story now. That was an amazing challenge to take, not get paid in the end and shunned by the community. But stories like this paved the way for our freedoms today.

    Reply
    • Evelyne, They sure did! One aspect of the book I really enjoyed was learning about the politics of the time (parts of which are the same to they are now) and the growing suffragette movement. It really added depth to understanding their journey.

      Reply
  3. Wow, what an inspirational story! It’s such a shame their family reacted the way they did. Their notes and journals would be a fascinating read now!

    Reply
  4. I’ve never been to that part of Washington but I’ve always thought the Palouse region is beautiful from the photos I’ve seen. What an interesting story – with such a sad outcome!

    Reply
    • Jill, I’ve been to the area a handful of times within the past year, in winter and spring, and it is so beautiful. I so wish that story had turned out with them getting the money, as it might have had an entirely different effect on the family.

      Reply
  5. Wow what an amazing piece of history! It must have been such an ordeal in those times without proper hiking gear and navigation but what an adventure. Thanks for sharing

    Reply
    • Naomi, I know! They went through several pairs of shoes during their journey. I can’t imagine that the shoes were comfortable either.

      Reply
  6. What a riveting story. To embark on such a journey ad face such hardship make you realize how blessed we are today. You are so good at immersing us in the history and painting a picture of these small towns. It makes us think we need to see them for ourselves and learn more for ourselves.

    Thanks for sharing. Keep travel blogging. Adventure is better shared with friends!

    Reply
    • Anthony, It seems like every small town I visit has a unique story or characters. As a traveler and a woman, this story really struck me. The book brought so much of that era to life and what it was like being a woman in the Victorian era. Glad to hear you found it interesting as well.

      Reply
    • Carol, They were very gutsy, especially considering the times and social customs. They did stop at a lot of small towns. I would have so loved reading those parts of her journals.

      Reply
  7. Rockford is such a charming and quaint town. But what really bowled me over was the story of the mother and daughter duo, Helga and Clara Estby. What an epic journey in the conservative Victorian era. A story that the world should have known much earlier. Their saga is so inspiring and yet tragic too as they did not get their due. The world is indebted to author Linda Lawrence Hunt for bringing this wonderful story alive. I have to read this book!

    Reply
    • Sandy, The book is a great read and goes more in-depth about Helga’s personality, and how her experiences throughout life shaped her. I was so interested in the story, that it only took me a few days to read.

      Reply
  8. Interesting story and the duo reminded me about Terry Fox, but they did walk across America from the East Coast! Thanks for sharing and there are lots of amazing stories even it’s only a small town in Washington. @ knycx.journeying

    Reply
  9. Such a fascinating story this is. you have written it so well that reading it full mind makes more interesting. Thanks for sharing and keep up the good work.

    Reply
  10. That is an absolutely fascinating story! What a journey to do on foot and make it. So sad that she was swindled at the end of it all, but great that her story remains alive. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • Greg, She must have been so heartbroken the woman didn’t pay, and then on top of that to have even more heartbreak when two of her children died while they were stranded in New York. All the hardships add to the story, don’t you think?

      Reply
  11. This is such a fascinating story. Like you, I love hearing pieces of history like this story – it stays with me and makes me think of how life was back then. It’s definitely a story of determination and I feel it would make a great movie. So interesting to find out stories like this so thank you.

    Reply
    • Aimee, It would make for a great movie. I’d much rather see a movie like that, than another rendition of Superman.

      Reply
  12. A small town – and a great story! Not exactly hilarious but truly fascinating, it adds lots of charm to the place. Your pinterest pic looks like a lovely book cover – wouldn’t that be an idea….at least for a short story?!

    Reply
  13. I was not knowing about Rockford and its beautiful historical background. The story of Norwegian immigrant of mother and daughter touched my soul. What a beautiful story which not many people know about it. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • Briana, It seems like every small town I go to, I learn a cool or interesting fact about an event or person. That is one of the most favorite things about my job!

      Reply
  14. I am from Spokane but haven’t heard this story. It is so inspirational and heartbreaking. I am so sad that their family didn’t even acknowledge the sacrifices Helga and Clara did. Thanks for this post.

    Reply

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